The dog days are coming, and that’s a good thing. With Big Ten Media Days kicking off on Monday, Land Of 10 is breaking down the three biggest questions each team is hoping to answer coming out of Chicago. We’ll post two per day, with one from each division, turning this time in the Big Ten West to the …
MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
1. Is it possible this crew could REALLY be 2016’s version of Iowa?
Heck, yes, it’s possible. The offense features seven returning starters, including pass-run bruiser Mitch Leidner at quarterback and hulking Jonah Pirsig (6-foot-9, 316 pounds) at one of the tackle slots, and coach Tracy Claeys promises a more up-tempo, zone-read approach that plays to his signal-caller’s strengths.
And the schedule — well, let’s just say the schedule is the polar opposite of the dance card handed to rival and neighbor Wisconsin. The first nine games are all winnable and six of them are at home. No Ohio State. No Michigan. No Michigan State.
Plus, if a tricky two-week stretch that opens October at Penn State and at home against Iowa can be navigated, the following four weeks could be a downhill coast or a coronation: at Maryland, vs. Rutgers, at Illinois, vs. Purdue, a quartet that won a combined five league tilts last fall.
Fine margins figure to again play a big role in the West division race, which means kicker Ryan Santoso — who nailed 17 of 21 field-goal attempts in 2015, including six of eight from between 40 and 49 yards out — could get the chance to make himself a hero. Several times over.
2. But they’ll go as Leidner goes, won’t they?
Probably. A local product with a build (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) and arm (2,701 passing yards) that intrigue scouts, the senior quarterback offers the kind of wheels (270 rushing yards, six touchdowns on the ground) that could cast him as the same kind of effective battering ram that Collin Klein was under Bill Snyder at Kansas State.
And yet there’s one very big question Leidner can’t shake: Is that same arm good enough, consistent enough, to punish teams who crowd the box?
The Gophers’ signal-caller was emblematic of his team’s up-and-down performances this past autumn. When Leidner completed at least 60 percent of this throws in 2015, Minnesota went 5-3. When it was fewer than 60 percent, Goldy was 1-4.
3. Given Claeys’ background as a defensive coordinator, can that side of the ball take another step?
It can, but the new pieces in three-quarters of the starting secondary are going to have to gel in a hurry. The same goes up front, where the rush defense was either really salty or really porous, depending on the week. Minnesota made Michigan work for 127 rushing yards but got gashed badly by TCU (203 net yards), Nebraska (203), Iowa (272) and the Badgers (257).
On paper, at least, the spine of the defense ought to have the goods:
— Chris Hoffer (@PFF_Hoffer) July 20, 2016
The challenge is to swim out of the tractor beam that perennially pulls the Gophers toward .500 (average record from 2006-’15: 5.4 wins, 7.3 defeats), to shake off the pattern of yins and yangs.
Is this the roster that played the Frogs tough at home and came within a whisker of knocking off Michigan? Or the one that was outscored against Northwestern and Nebraska by a combined count of 75-25?
The longtime faithful wouldn’t mind a break from the usual roller-coaster. If the schedule is any indication, this autumn has the potential for a far, far smoother ride.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler